One of the coolest things about being in Beijing at this point in its history is watching the ways that the city processes the huge amounts of new cultural information that enter it each day. On its surface, Beijing’s cultural identity seems pretty fixed. It’s the PRC’s symbolic center, and it needs to look the part. But if you look below the surface, you see a city passionately seeking out and soaking in new forms of life and living. For the past few months, I’ve been interviewing some of the people who seem to be at the front of this process. I’ll post up some my favorites as time goes by.

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To start, here’s a conversation I had a couple weeks ago with Robin Liao. Robin owns Together Bar, Beijing’s #1 (and only) reggae spot. I hope you enjoy….

Quotables:

“Reggae in China is like blind people touching an elephant.”

“If you put Bob-anything in the internet, you get Bob Dylan.”

“Sometimes an opportunity just falls down from the sky – like a pie in the sky. But sometimes it is really a pie.”

“I’m a Gemini so I always jump.”

Let’s talk a little about your past first. What did you do before opening the Together Bar?

I was an IT engineer for many years. I came to Beijing in 1997, when I was 21. I’m originally from Jilin in the north.

What made you want to leave the IT industry?

I had the idea to leave very early in my career, maybe 1998. IT makes you feel very tired. I entered the IT industry because I had the passion of a young boy for technology. But the kind of passion can disappear very fast.

At that time, in 1998, I had never worked for a foreign company and my English was bad. Actually I never took any training in English even after that, but later I got the opportunity to work for a very good foreign company. Airbus? Do you know it?

Yes, the European aircraft company.

Yes, they were mostly French then. Then I started to try to speak English. But I’m lazy, I never bought a book or anything.

So joining a good company extended my time in the IT industry. You want to leave, but suddenly you have the opportunity to work where the company is good, the people are good, the environment, the hardware – for example, the chords they use to connect the cables are very good – so your passion becomes more and more.

In Chinese we have a saying yuan fen – this means fate or destiny. Many things for me are fated. Life is something you can’t plan. I was born in a small town, and moved to a bigger town then a bigger town, and then to Beijing. For the people who are born in the big city and have good parents, maybe they can go to a good middle school – we call it zhongdian xuexiao, “important school” – then later they can go to a good university like Tsinghua. For them, maybe they can plan their lives a little bit. For us, we just struggle. Sometimes an opportunity just falls down from the sky – like a pie in the sky. But sometimes it is really a pie.

For me, opportunities always show up very suddenly. When you rewind the memory, then you feel it was really an accident.

I guess you just have to know to take the opportunity when it comes.

What you said is a kind of methodology. The other understanding, maybe Chinese people still have some Buddhist influence, is that, if something belongs to you, then you will get it. Then you can calm down a little. Even if today you lose everything, you don’t know what will happen tomorrow.

Maybe your phone rings and it’s a friend with some kind of idea or plan. Later when you think about it, you know that that moment changed your life. Like I opened the bar and it changed my life or a new job opportunity made me work longer in the IT industry than I planned to. I’m a Gemini, so I always jump.

After Airbus I jumped to ABB, a Swiss company. But I still wanted to leave the IT industry, because ABB is a huge company, about 160,000 people. And they have a very complicated system of organization. So you are like a nail in the company. You can’t move. They have so many procedures, and I hate the pocedures. So that made me want leave not just the company but the industry.

But what can I do? As you can see from the bar, I like to get together with people. This is my style. So somebody said, “You can switch to sales. Still IT, but there’s a big difference.” So I thought, why not try? At that time I got to know my wife, so I moved from Beijing to Chengdu to start a new life and do sales. I did that for about two years.

In sales you can’t be honest. You have to be slippery like a fish. Sales is playing a role, like an actor. I dislike that even more than the IT engineering, but this was how I fed myself.

Then, finally, I got the opportunity to start a small company. So I came back to Beijing to start the company. But the company had a short life – less than a year.

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So after your company went out of business, you started thinking about opening the bar?

At the same time. My wife moved to Beijing around that time. She used to work at a foreign company also. But after she arrived in Beijing she was a little bit – how do you say? – fell down. She was depressed. She just stayed at home. She sent out some CVs and tried to use the normal way to get a job, but she didn’t get one. But, you know, if I research my experience, I find that if she’d got a job we wouldn’t have the Together Bar.

Anyway, she fell down to a bad mood for a few months and just stayed home and played computer games. So I pushed her. She had this idea to open a small place, but what she had in mind was something for Chinese people and white collars. But I think it’s not useful to think, think, think, because later what you get is totally out of your expectations.

How did it become a reggae bar?

We knew that people go to a coffee shop or bar not for the drink but for the environment and the relationships. They just want a place to cheer up. We didn’t have a frame or a formula, so we could change very freely. It was just a white paper, we hadn’t even started to draw. So it’s funny, it can change from an egg to maybe later a kangaroo.

But you were already a fan of reggae music?

Yeah, I enjoyed it very much, but, honestly, my knowledge was very limited. I couldn’t even recognize the difference between Alpha Blondy and Bob Marley. For me, they were very similar, at that time. But it’s very rare to listen to reggae in China.

I’ve always been a music fan. There’s a special word in Chinese – dakou de yidai. Yidai means generation. Dakou means… you know that imported CDs here have a notch cut into the plastic case. You know that?

Yeah.

We call that dakou. So the dakou generation started in the ’80s. Imported music was illegal then, but you started to see it around, maybe, 1985. So the first generation that grew up listening to these imported CDs is called the dakou generation, and I’m part of that.

So people could only get a little information from these cut foreign CDs, and, even in the 1990s, there was only one or two magazines. A few Chinese people who had been abroad or Taiwanese people started to write things. So people started to learn about music little by little. It was like blind people touching an elephant. Do you know that story?

No. What is it?

This is a famous story. Maybe about ten blind people went to touch an elephant. And the elephant is so big that they couldn’t know what it is really like. Somebody touched the ears, somebody held the trunk, somebody touched the legs. Then they said, “This is an elephant.” And other people said, “This is an elephant.” So it’s like that with reggae in China.

The way people think about reggae today is like the way they did 20 years ago when they first started to hear about the Beatles. Because they got some fragments, like the parts of an elephant. They know John Lennon and they know the Beatles, and later they found out, “Wow, they are the same thing!”

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When’s the first time you heard reggae?

At Airbus. My boss, the department manager, was a French guy. He plays reggae in his car, and once a month, we’d go out to have lunch together. He had the habit of taking out the IT department for lunch every month or two. On the road, I’d listen to it. And, even from the first moment, I felt shocked. This was around 2001 and at that time I’d already read a little bit, so I thought I knew something about western music – rock & roll, hippies, and things like that. So I was maybe a little bit better than the blind people touching the elephant.

At least I knew the concept: what is [heavy] metal? I didn’t even know any famous artists, but I knew, “Oh, this is metal.” But when I listened to reggae, I realized this is different. Because of the rhythm, you know, chunk ka chunk, is very different. Also very different from African music. African music’s rhythm is not so simple. It’s even more strange, I mean, for us.

I was tired of pop music at the time. I used to be a big fan of pop music, but, after I turned 18, I started to get tired of it. Even Michael Jackson. I listened to him when I was in high school and I felt it was very amazing. Very exciting. But when I entered my twenties, I started looking for a new direction. When you work for a good company, you have more time and you come into contact with more foreigners, so I felt something suddenly rush into my life.

I felt like I wanted to search for new things, and, you know, thank God we had the internet at that time. But even with that there was almost nothing. Even today, if you get a hundred hits about reggae from the internet in China, maybe half are about the Together Bar.

So my boss told me the name Bob Marley. But because he is French, his pronunciation was like Bob Mahulee. So I didn’t know how to spell it. I tried many things, maybe eight different spellings, but I got nothing. I got Bob Dylan. If you put Bob-anything in the internet, you get Bob Dylan.

At that time, if I could just have found one article, even a short one that you finish reading in five minutes, I could have known at least that the music is called reggae. I’d know the correct spelling, and I’d know the most famous star is Bob Marley, and they are from Jamaica. Even that I didn’t know.

So without much help from the internet, how did you learn? Did you just talked to people about it?

Yes. I even played music for people. When I met more foreigners, I’d ask them, “Do you know this?” For many years, I only had two CDs, and they weren’t real CDs, just MP3s from my boss. I asked him after lunch one time, and I think he was little worried about copyright protection. But he understood, and he wanted to introduce the music to me.

What was on the CDs?

One was Bob Marley, but it wasn’t one album, it was a mix. The other one was Alpha Blondy. But it was a good one, I think that is very important. It was Masada. That was the start.

When you listen to more and more, you can hear the small differences more clearly. Alpha Blony is different. He is from Cote d’Ivorie in Africa. His music is faster and more happy. Bob Marley’s is full of some painful feeling, you know? Alpha Blondy obviously doesn’t have so much pressure.

So now that you’ve talked to more people and learned more, who are some of your favorite artists?

I don’t think I have a favorite now. Before I had, but when you listen very much I think you can’t have a favorite. Too many great artists. Like Gregory Isaacs or the Abyssinians or the Gladiators.

Yeah, the Gladiators are great.

So I like that, but that’s only one style. Matisyahu I also like very much. You know Matisyahu? He’s Jewish, and he puts everything together – dancehall, dub, roots, and then some like Oooohh oooooo, how can I call it? Special Jewish sounds.

Actually, I’m still learning. Sometimes we talk with some customers from Jamaica, you know, with dreadlocks. We talk in detail about this. We talk about some people like Lee Perry, what his contribution was. And they explained that, you know in 1962 they built their country. And if you spend time in the bar, you can always hear many different versions of how reggae changed. Some people will say that ska is very fast and good for dancing, because people were very happy when they just got freedom and independence. So then why is [the mood] going down? Because they thought their lives would get better but, later, they realized that that is not true. So down and down, and also the lyrics began to fill with these feelings.

I think learning has been very important for me to start to like dancehall. For a very long time, I accepted the roots reggae, but I didn’t accept dancehall. There’s one very nice song [Capleton's] “Jah Jah City” and I heard that a lot, but, in the beginning, I felt it was too noisy. Because I didn’t know the full story about reggae. But now I feel that song is very nice, so it’s a process. And hip hop also. I started to listen to hip hop through Damian Marley. Someone said that he made the border [between reggae and hip hop] less clear. So that is a process.

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What do you think of hip hop?

I don’t know hip hop very well, but from learning about reggae, I think I understand it more and more. Because hip hop grew up from reggae. The original DJ is from Jamaica. Only in Jamaica the DJ is the guy toasting. In other places, DJ means music selector. But in Jamaica, the guy who plays music is called the selector and the guy who picks up the microphone, like U-Roy, is the DJ. And this Jamaican DJ music… The most famous example is like [U-Roy's] “Natty Rebel”. You know it? He used Bob Marley’s “Soul Rebel” and it’s fantastic.

I’ve never been to Jamaica or the US, so I’ve only read it on Wikipedia or talked to foreigners or something, but out of all the words they say, you can make a picture, like a puzzle.

So from [reggae DJs], the black people in the US realized that they can rap in the clubs, and toast, you know, make it HOT! So, I read in an article, I think in Rolling Stone magazine, that this is one of the four important factors in hip hop. But most Chinese people don’t know hip hop through dancehall, they know it directly. From advertisements and clothes and like this. (makes typical hip hop hand gesture) So most young people like this, and I don’t know if they want to know the background.

So does all your music come from the internet? I’ve never seen any reggae albums in the stores here.

Most of it comes from the internet. A lot comes from foreign customers, because only foreigners can have a large reggae collection. Sometimes, after they see the bar, they really support. Some even brought their hard discs to the bar.

Yeah, that’s nice.

You know, one time someone gave me his ten year collection. They are really generous about music. This is their blood, this kind of collection. But one friend said something very nice. He said, “Music belongs to the people.” Bob Marley also said reggae music is the people’s music. So, we try to keep that spirit.

Do you know Karl Marx? He wrote about the fantastic society?

Yes, the European philosopher.

He wrote that most famous essay, how do you call that?

The Communist Manifesto. That’s the most famous one.

You don’t have to spend money for anything? The utopia? In the Together Bar, we sometimes try to make this kind of utopia in a small scope.

How?

Two things have effected my path or – how do you say? – heart path. One is the Together Bar and the other is Buddhism.

My wife is a Buddhist. The Buddhists have one policy, their most important policy: no difference. That means you should treat everyone the same – your parents, your friends, and even strangers should be the same. That’s very hard to do and to explain, but it’s important.

Together Bar is very international. We used to count the countries. We had a paper and when a new customer would come in, we’d say, “Where are you from?… Oh, Poland? You’re the first one.” Then write it in the book. And very easily we collected sixty countries. And after that we stopped, so maybe it’s even more now. Everyday we have more than five or ten different countries’ people. Like last night was Thanksgiving and, this has happened many times, there were twenty people, but they are from fifteen countries. Japanese, and different colors, Latin, and white people like you. Also ABCs [American-born Chinese], they have a Chinese face and a western culture. So, how can you separate who is who?

Most people, especially in China, live in a box, because they don’t have the opportunity go out and they don’t have the opportunity to get in touch with other kinds of people. My wife and I have never gone abroad, but sometimes I make a joke, “We stay here and all you from abroad come to see us!” Our lives are almost only in the Together Bar, and if you live in the Together Bar it’s almost like going abroad.

We want to have some real home feeling, so we celebrate all their holidays with them, in their way. We speak their language. Sometimes I notice my Chinese is getting worse. Suddenly I’ll speak a Chinese sentence, then I realize it’s in English grammar. The word order, you know? So I think I’m thinking in English.

In the summertime we always have dinner at 7 with some customers. For them it’s dinner, for us, it’s our lunch. We sit outside on the porch of the Together Bar. You know, some foreigners don’t have jobs. They’re just in Beijing to study Chinese or to just cheer up. So they come everyday. Everyday at 6 or 7, it’s like we’re a dining room. Sometimes they order from next door, or sometimes they cook at home and bring it. Sometimes my mother cooks for me, and I bring one or two boxes to the bar.

So people have said Together Bar is like a commune. I was kidding once, and I said, “This [neighborhood] is like a village. It’s called the South CBD Village. And the people who work in the fields during the daytime come back at night to eat.” Because in the village, the farmers don’t care about privacy as much as people in the city do. Every home has an open door, and they go out and visit each other. If you are the leader of the village, then your home should be the meeting room. So, I was kidding and said, “Together Bar is the home of the village leader.”

You can say we’ve been living abroad for a year and a half now. But, actually, it’s even more than that, because if you go to Finland or America, it’s full of local people. And they have a limited view and maybe some incorrect opinions. But in Together Bar, it’s a mix. It’s like buying many different brands of milk from the market and then pouring them all into one big cup. So, for us, the bar is a very good venue for thinking about life.

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